A CONVERSATION WITH...

Francis Ngannou Wants to Bring it All Home

“I realized I may be having an impact on some kid’s life who doesn’t have an opportunity as I do,” the UFC heavyweight champion tells Boardroom. “I won’t take that for granted.”

Since becoming UFC heavyweight champion in March in thunderous fashion, Francis Ngannou has never had such a powerful platform with which to inspire kids. To build gyms and community programs in his native Cameroon. To impart a champion’s mindset that has nothing to do with knockout wins and golden belts. To bring to life the dream of a first-ever UFC event in Africa.

But those aren’t the only items on his wish list.

As he told us during a November visit to Boardroom’s offices:

“I want my fucking G-Wagon.

The champ had spoken. And that was that.

“I don’t know what the hell is wrong, I’ve been looking for this ride for years [and] I can’t find a G-Wagon,” the typically soft-spoken Ngannou said of his quest to own the iconic Mercedes SUV. “I even have a friend who has a dealership and we can’t find one. I finally bought a used one, but I want my own customized [version].

It’s hard to imagine that the champ hasn’t fully earned an ultra-deluxe G-Class Benz at this point, supply chain be damned. But looking ahead to the start of 2022, the man known as the Predator will be content to (temporarily) set such a desire aside on Jan. 22 when he stands across from interim heavyweight champion and former teammate Ciryl Gane at UFC 270 in Anaheim.

It will be the first time he’ll attempt to defend the title since winning it from future Hall of Famer Stipe Mioicic this past spring via a punishing flurry of strikes.

“Stylistically, he could be almost the same [as Miocic],” Ngannou told Boardroom. “Ciryl strikes more, but don’t forget how Stipe moves as well. [Stipe] is not bouncing as much, but he moves pretty good. On top of that, he can change levels pretty quick because he’s also a good wrestler and his striking is great. I’m safer with him on the level change than with Stipe. That gives me room to be able to focus on his striking, because I know that is his best game. With Stipe, his striking is good, but he can come at you with his wrestling.” 

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UFC 270 will be Francis’ first time defending the belt. It’s also a unification fight — Gane defeated heavyweight contender Derrick Lewis by TKO in October, receiving the UFC’s interim title. That means Ngannou will have had nearly a 10-month break from the last time he fought.

That also means plenty of time to work on his already formidable game, rounding out a set of skills long highlighted by the otherworldly power the 6-foot-4, 265-pound Predator packs.

As a professional, when you think you’re good at something, that’s the moment that you start to become bad at that thing,” he said. “Obviously I know that I have more room [for] improvement on a few such as wrestling and ground game than on striking, so I like to focus on everything, see myself all the time as a beginner. Open my mind and let everything that I can learn come to me.”

The time away from the Octagon has given Ngannou a new perspective on life away from MMA, too.

A whole lot of that comes from his upbringing: At 10 just years of age, Ngannou worked in a sand mine doing grueling work to provide for himself and his family. He developed a love of boxing, and eventually emigrated to France in search of a better life. Living on the streets without a euro to his name, he was eventually introduced to the folks at Paris martial arts gym MMA Factory.

Less than eight years later, he became a UFC champion.

The rags to riches story inspired Ngannou to open up his very own combat sports gym in Cameroon for children of all ages to have a place to train and a place not just to hang out and learn a new discipline, but learn how to dream just like he did.

“Our next move is to [have] the UFC make a huge event in Africa — not because of the business side of it, but just to give those people something to believe in,” he said. “To allow those who want to follow that path to believe that it’s possible. It could be in Rwanda, Senegal, Nigeria — as long as it is in Africa, that’s good enough for me.”

Check out the additional highlights from Boardroom’s conversation with the UFC heavyweight champ:

What it means to wear a UFC belt:

It’s a title, but being a champion is first of all a mindset. Being a champion is not just being a fighter or the guy that [knocks] people out; I think is about [doing] your best out of it — for you in your life, and also for people around you.

At some point, I feel like it’s kind of selfish to just think about you, because not many people in their lifetime have a chance to be in that spot, have the opportunity to impact people. To give a dream to kids. All that makes you a champion. You are doing this for them.

If you’re not ready for that, you’re not ready. Maybe you have the belt, but you’re not ready to be champion.

On giving back to local communities back home in Cameroon:

You realize that you’re getting more and more people committed to your cause; it would be selfish to let them down. I realized that I may be having an impact on some kid’s life out there who maybe doesn’t have an opportunity as I do, who doesn’t have a chance to [find] their way out of their situation [like] me.

Not taking that opportunity to give them that dream would be selfish. I won’t take that for granted.

You realize how many more problems come with it, such as health care, such as education. What I’m trying to do right now is make a community for kids. A place that they go as a refuge. A place to hang out, believe, dream, feel like [we] care about them.

On the gym he established:

It’s not just an MMA gym — it’s a full combat sport gym, so we can train every martial art or combat sport that we have the opportunity to teach, that we have coaches [for].

When you think about solving problems in Africa, you have to start from the root. The reason why I made a foundation was because growing up, I wanted to do boxing, but [for] 50 miles around, you can’t find a gym, and even if you find one, you couldn’t afford it. I always dreamed that someone would come there and just build something to help kids.

You have a gym that kids come to free of charge, but some kid won’t come because he doesn’t have clothes, so you also have to think about that. Some kid won’t come because he didn’t eat. You have to think about that. We make it more like a community. A place that kids will go and build a dream, build self-belief, and self-hope.

On how he got into cryptocurrency and NFTs:

Before the [Miocic] fight, I didn’t know anything about crypto. I heard about [how] crypto is a new world. It’s this, it’s that. I’m like, whatever.

I remember it was seven weeks before my fight. We have a meeting and they were telling [me and my manager] about the idea that they have on crypto. They said we’re gonna team up with Bosslogic, we’re going to design your NFT, we’re gonna do it at MakersPlace.

I’m like, whoa, whoa, whoa, can you just let me get focused on the fight? I just had a long week of training. I’m not fresh enough to let my mind process all this stuff.

[My manager] was like, trust me, bro, I got this. The only thing you’re going to do is receive money — nobody ever says no to that. It got me curious and I started to learn how to open an account on Coinbase.

After we released the NFT after my fight, the next day was the 1-of-1, and I was watching that one live. I think that was very impressive how people were bidding on it — I think it [went] for $284,000. I started [to] pay attention, ‘Okay, today my money is this amount.’ And it was on Ethereum, so I started to follow and see how it goes up and down.

Then I started to do trade some of it. Since I’ve been doing [it], I became like an addict. Like, daily, I’m gonna look [at] Ethereum maybe 20 times minimum. I just open and check and follow up.

Now I know a lot about the coins that get dropped on Coinbase, all those platforms. I’m always ready. It’s quite exciting, you know?

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